How beachcombing can help people with PTSD

How beachcombing can help people with PTSD

Countless people use the image of a beautiful sun-kissed beach as their mental happy place, to help them cope with anxiety or boredom. Though there are also benefits to heading to the British coast too!

It’s especially relaxing when you combine fresh sea air with an enjoyable activity such as beachcombing; an activity used to manage the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

What is beachcombing?

The definition of beachcombing varies, but it fundamentally means walking the shoreline in search of items of interest. This could be shells, pebbles, sea-polished glass or driftwood for example. For some people, this means collecting items you can display at home or use for crafting projects.

Some people invest in metal detection equipment and turn beachcombing into a search for coins and other items of value.

You may even want to transition from beachcombing treasure to joining the growing number of volunteers who litter-pick on the British coast. Sadly, there’s no shortage of waste on our nation’s beaches. ‘Combing’ protects wildlife, improves water quality and prevents accidents for dogs and children on the sand.

Why is beachcombing good for you and how can it help PTSD symptoms?

There have been many studies showing the physiological and psychological benefits of being by the sea.  ‘Humans feel more relaxed around large bodies of water.

Also, sea air is usually cleaner air, charged by negative ions. These negative ions boosts oxygen levels by helping absorption in your body, and this can make you feel more alert and energised – so be sure to take some deep breaths if you can! 

Finding a quiet stretch of coastline gives peace, away from the pace of modern life.

Though simply walking on the seashore is a great mood enhancer, some people prefer not to have time to get lost in their own head. Focusing on a task – such as beachcombing for shells – is a source of distraction and adds value to this ‘safe space’.

Ben Wheeler, the senior research fellow at Exeter University’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health (ECEHH), explained that beachcombing offers ‘attention restoration‘: “Our ability to concentrate is a limited resource that we deplete as we use it, whether that’s driving to the shops or focusing at work. In an environment like the beach, we use what’s called “soft attention” to engage with our surroundings, and it helps to replenish our mental reserves.”

There‘s also a healthy sense of accomplishment when you find something beautiful or quirky, to add to your collection of beachcombing ‘treasure’. Or when you fill bags with rubbish!

The owners of Argyll Seaglass found that their beachcombing really helped PTSD, “After moving to Cove in Argyll & Bute on the West Coast of Scotland to deal with Maries’ Mental Health problems, we started taking daily walks on the many amazing beaches and Lochs that surround this beautiful area as a way of helping with Maries therapy and found that it worked in helping Marie to forget about her PTSD, Depression and Anxiety problems for a short while.

Marie started collecting the many different beautiful colours of sea glass, shells & pottery that had been naturally tumbled by the sea over years, decades and sometimes even centuries.  I also noticed from a personal view how at peace Marie was with herself when she was making jewellery.”

Cissy White explains here why her passion of seaglass collecting helps PTSD “Because there is beauty in the world. It’s easy to forget. I walk on beaches to remember, pocketing pieces and bringing them home and putting it on display in my home. I’m a collector and once shattered pieces become gems worthy of art work, decoration and jewellery. Sea glass is the ultimate survivor and symbol of triumph over nature and elements.

Though broken or abandoned, tossed or shattered it becomes a gem people hunt and seek. Sometimes, you have to look hard to find even one small piece. You may search all day and come home empty-handed. Still, even when hiding, it is there.

Maybe it will take a storm to rip at the ocean floor to be moved. Maybe it will reveal itself by an empty hand the next time you are smelling salt and sitting on top of warm sand. Keep returning. It will find you.

Walking the beach was my first body-centered practice. While hunting for treasures I’d feel the texture of rocks beneath my feet while the sun warmed my shoulders. My hair got tangled by wind and my skin wet with the drink of  mist. The salt water was aromatherapy. I’d return back home, even if I found no sea glass, refreshed. Maybe it was the Vit D or the ions in the ocean air. Who cares? Who cares? It made me fall back in love with nature, life, solitude and the planet. All you have to do is find a beach.”

Are you allowed to take things from UK shores?

There are limits on the number of materials you can take from British beaches to prevent wholesale depletion. Plus, if you find items washed ashore from ships or rigs, you’re required to flag these up to the authorities.

However, public bodies are happy for visitors and locals to pocket a few items from beaches.

You could also use a ‘catch and release’ system, putting your findings back on the sand. Perhaps keeping one or two, as a reminder of a positive and uplifting visit to the coast.

Community engagement

Joining a local Beach protection organisation is a good way to engage with people in your community and create important social interaction if you have PTSD.

You could join occasional beach clean-ups or regular weekly walks to gather waste.

An example of a local organisation is Love My Beach, on the Lancashire coast. The Marine Conservation Society takes a lead in this and there are also bodies such as Surfers Against Sewage too.

If you prefer being a solo beachcomber, in the UK you’re never more than 70 miles from the sea!

It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.

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